Walking through a graveyard in the middle of the day, nobody is going to be overly disturbed as it's much like wandering through a park. In fact there are some graveyards in the world where thousands of visitors flock each year to wander their confines to search for the celebrities like Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde who are buried there. However, let it be after dark and that very same graveyard is apt to be deserted.
While some might ascribe it to a fear of the supernatural, I think the real reason for people avoiding graveyards at night is because they unite two of mankind's most primal fears: death and the dark. Our fear of the dark is a hangover from the days before we discovered fire and were at the mercy of the many denizens of the night who looked upon us as snack material. While we've devised many belief systems to try and answer the question of what happens to us after we die, there's never been a shred of proof offered that any of them are true. Death, for all the promises of pie in the sky made by so many religions, is the the great unknown, the great darkness that no fire we possess can disperse.
So there aren't that many of us that would think of graveyards as a sanctuary from danger, but in his latest release, The Graveyard Book, from Harper Collins, Neil Gaiman has done just that. Replete with illustrations by his look time collaborator Dave McKean, The Graveyard Book offers a behind the scenes peak at what happens to us after we are laid to rest as it tells the story of the night the inhabitants of one graveyard became involved with the affairs of the living and the events that ensued in the years following.
The story opens with death, as befits a novel set in a graveyard. Thankfully the deaths are all ready accomplished when we enter the story, for they were the violent deaths a husband, wife, and daughter at the hands of a knife wielding killer. However the killer, a mysterious man named Jack, is still on the prowl for the survivor of the house's inhabitants, a baby boy. Yet when he reaches the top floor nursery where the crib lies waiting, it's only to find it empty and the boy vanished.
Sniffing out his trail, for like all good hunters our man Jack follows his prey more by scent than by sight, he follows it out of the house onto the street which leads up the hill to a graveyard. Although he could swear he smelt the baby's scent leading into the cemetery, once there he loses the trail. In fact, all of a sudden he realizes that he's come in the completely wrong direction and there's no reason for him to be in the graveyard at all. The boy he decides must have gone down the hill, not up, and anyway, who or what would a baby find shelter with in a graveyard. No, somehow or other Jack must have followed the wrong scent, and he heads off into the night.
Of course if Jack had been able to see properly he might have noticed the great amount of consternation that had gripped the graveyard's residents as ghosts from as far back as Roman times debated the practical issues involved with them raising a live child. The real sticking point is how are they to provide for the child - none of them can leave the graveyard in order to gather the food he'll need to survive. It's only Silas, the graveyard's only undead resident, offering his services as guardian to the boy until he's grown, and a timely reminder from the Lady on the Grey, the one all the dead know as it's her and her great horse that wait for us at the end of our days, that the dead should know charity, that finally sway them to offer the little tyke Freedom of the Graveyard.
So it is that Nobody Owens, Bod for short, came to live in the graveyard at the top of the hill. As it was the Mrs. Owens who promised the shades of little Bod's parents that she would protect their son, she and Mr. Owens became his Mother and Father and he took their surname. As for his first name, well as Mrs. Owens put it, "he don't look like nobody but himself", and Silas agreed that's indeed who he looked like and named him appropriately.
When next we meet young Bod he's five years old and like all young people is full of questions about what he sees around him. Primary among them is why can't he leave the graveyard, and how do I do what he or she just did, and who lives in which plot. The answers he receives from the ghosts are most unsatisfactory, so he turns to the mysterious Silas for answers to his questions in the hopes of receiving a straight answer.
So it is that Bod finds out that he is different from the rest of the graveyards inhabitants, and that things like Fading, Dreamwalking and Haunting don't come naturally to him. It's also when he discovers that there is something or someone outside the graveyard who means to do him harm. Any trip he takes outside the graveyard could result in his whereabouts being discovered and his death.
There is something about Neil Gaiman's writing that no matter the subject, and no matter how scary things might be getting, there's the sense that he's not trying to exploit your fears like other writers who deal with the supernatural. There's such a feeling of awe and wonder to his writing that you can't help but feel entranced by all that's going on in the story. That's the case again with The Graveyard Book as we wander around with Bod meeting the various inhabitants of his graveyard home and watching him grow from a young boy to a young adult. In fact it's the human world that's the scariest as the people out there, from teenagers to adults, are decidedly unpredictable and apt to act nastily without any rhyme or reason.
Gaiman's other great gift is his ability to make all of his characters instantly believable no matter who or what they are. From Bod to Silas, and all the inhabitants of the graveyard, each character has such a distinct personality that as readers we are able to see them in our mind's eye almost immediately upon meeting them. While the world they inhabit might be completely alien to us, after all there aren't probably many among his readers who are terribly familiar with life in a graveyard, we quickly accept their reality as normal because they are so real.
While Gaiman doesn't need much assistance in generating atmosphere in his stories, Dave McKean's illustrations add that little extra something that ensures we remember the other worldly quality of the environment the book takes place in. While his drawings aren't necessarily frightening, they do remind us of the differences between Bod and his friends and neighbours by representing their physical differences. For while Bod is always drawn as a relatively solid person, there is something always ethereal about the way the other characters are depicted.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean is a delightful mix of fantasy and mystery that will entertain readers of all ages. Like the best fairy tales there are moments that are scary enough to make us worry about the fate of Nobody Owens, but there are an equal, if not greater number, of magical moments that transport us out of our world and make us forget our mundane reality. What could be better than that.
(Originally posted November 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.